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As a freelancer, three little words have followed me around, spoken of like magic beans, and if somehow acquired, my career and fortunes will grow and grow and grow. Those words?
Diversifying your income
Finding several revenue streams feels more urgent than ever. And perhaps, with the impact of Covid-19, many have realised just how potentially hazardous having all your work eggs in one basket can be.
This is something I learned first-hand. When my main client folded last year and left me with thousands of pounds of unpaid work, I quickly realised how precarious I was. I had become comfortable – a gloriously cosy and extremely dangerous place to be. Pretty much overnight, I had to start finding other clients.
So how do you go about diversifying your income as a freelancer? Here are a few of my hard-earned lessons, along with insights from Jess MacIntyre, co-founder of Mac + Moore, a London-based marketing agency, with clients such as Now TV, Transport for London and a host of female founders.
1. Think about what you have to sell
Diversifying your income isn’t about suddenly becoming a graphic designer if you’re a yoga instructor – that’s a career change. This is about building on what you already have and working to your strengths. The first thing I did was to really think about what skills I could sell. Updating your CV is a great way to remind yourself what’s in your toolbox.
Then start thinking laterally about where you could sell those skills. Think about agencies, businesses, brands or platforms you admire. When the proverbial hits the fan, a desperate desire to earn money can lead to a few frantic and misplaced emails being fired off.
Resist the urge and think more carefully. What skills are transferable? What will hook in a potential source of work? What have you done that might be relevant to that business? Do you have experience working with reputable brands, under pressure, with international clients? What values do you share with that company? Have they worked with people you admire or, better yet, know? Could someone offer you an introduction? Figuring out the answers to some of these questions will help point you in the direction of the type of work you might want to move into, and be able to explain why you’d be a good asset to that business, even if your experience isn’t an obvious fit.
Jes MacIntyre has spent the last year successfully diversifying her business’s income. I ask her if, in crude terms, the process is like a shoe shop deciding to also sell bags and hats? “Yes, but it’s not just linear expansion, she says. “If you’re looking at shoes, you could be also thinking about how a customer could design a shoe online. Perhaps they could send you a design pattern, and then you’ll make the shoe…It’s taking something you already do well and thinking of new ways in which you apply to it.”.
Whatever direction you go in, however, “go with your grain” she says. “Don’t try and do something that doesn’t feel natural and feels like a fight. You’re going to lose, you’re going to hate it, you’re going beat yourself up. Every single person has a really few amazing strengths. You just have to find ways of really supercharging them”.
2. Let people know what you are selling now that you weren’t selling before
Once you identify what it is you do, it’s a case of repackaging. I set about letting editors in sectors I didn’t normally cover know that I was keen to write across topics. And even though I didn’t have the specific experience, I used what I could to make myself more suitable. For example, when pitching for work on luxury products – not my usual beat at all – I explained I’d written for fashion magazines and worked with brands in the same sector. At this stage, it’s not so much a question of proving you’re competent at the skill, it’s about showing you understand the business/sector you want to move into.
MacIntrye and her co-founder decided to branch out into sectors they were passionate about, alongside the bread and butter clients. “Once we had a road map of where we were headed, we had to change our brand voice via our blogs, social media and website to start promoting that we would be diversifying in that way”.
3. Making the first moves
The next question, of course, is how you actually go about it. As Anna Codrea-Rado recently wrote in her newsletter on freelance life, start with your inner circle of contacts and move out. If you’re entering an entirely new field, however, do your homework and try to understand the business you’re approaching.
“I would generally research a really interesting founder”, says MacIntyre. “I would look up their work, read any interviews I can find or anything they’ve written”. She also mentions that when going after new work, it can be a good idea to actually provide a solution to a problem that the business might have. This way you’re showing how you could add value, not just asking for work. For me, LinkedIn has always been a great platform for linking with contacts I didn’t even know I had, or contacts of contacts. Recently, I offered a skill swap on there, and came away with a handful of really great email addresses and leads to potential work.
Through contacts they’d forged, MacIntyre and her business partner were invited onto a podcast. As a result, “a member of diversity and inclusion team at Unilever slid into our DMs. And we’ve ended up working with them”. This might sound like the rare occasion when work comes knocking, but it’s worth remembering the work undertaken to position themselves in the right space, through rebranding, reaching out to the right people, forging the right contacts. On top of that, says Jess, “It was really interesting that she actually connected with us over us being ourselves; it was less about the hard sell. It was more that we spoke from our hearts.”
Right now, diversifying your income might be more essential than ever. This pandemic has thrown the economy up in the air, and no one is quite sure where everything will land. Diversifying income is about being ready, agile, and open – all things we’ll need to survive. Yet there’s one thing that won’t change and that’s your talents and your skills. They are the real magic beans. You’ve just got to be smarter about making them grow.
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